Learning Through Lyrics

By James Buckley   |   September 12, 2023

I recently enjoyed a Sunday evening Broadway Cruise onboard Hiroko Benko’s Condor Express whale-watching vessel here in Santa Barbara. The event featured two young singers – soprano Anikka Abbott and baritone Nicholas Ehlen – who sang classic numbers (accompanied by pianist Renée Hamaty) from a variety of Broadway musicals. The songs featured were such hits as “Tonight” from West Side Story, “Bring Him Home” (Les Misérables), “On the Street Where You Live” (My Fair Lady), and “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot. The duo’s repertoire also included “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “I’ll Know” from Guys & Dolls (in which they both performed for a recent Santa Barbara City College production), “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess, “Till There Was You” from The Music Man, and perhaps another half-dozen memorable tunes gleaned by Ms. Hamaty and her singers from the best of America’s musical songbook.

As I listened, it occurred to me that songs such as these, and many less exalted ones, are the stuff of our lives. Popular songwriters such as Jeff Barry (who wrote “Tell Laura I Love Her” and who lived in Montecito for many years), Harry Warren of “That’s Amoré” (who also lived in Montecito), Cole Porter(“I Love Paris”), Irving Berlin (“God Bless America”), Jerome Kern (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”), and so many others of an even earlier era, wrote lyrics that not only mirrored the lives we were living, but gave those lives a good chunk of their meaning.

For example, Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics for “On the Street Where You Live” reflect the thoughts of lovestruck Freddy, whose infatuation with Professor Henry Higgins’s ingénue Eliza Doolittle becomes an obsession. Just being on Wimpole Street and knowing that lovely Eliza was behind one of the doors of one of the houses was enough to transpose Freddy’s body to another plane. He wonders if lilac trees grow on other streets, or if larks sing anywhere else in London. His joy, frustration, elation, hopes, and desires, overpower him knowing that “any second” she “may suddenly appear.”

As a young man, had it been me on the street where my first enchantment with the opposite sex lived, I would have felt exactly the same as Freddy and wouldn’t have known what to say if the object of my affection had appeared.

And, apparently, Freddy didn’t either.

In Guys and Dolls, big-time gambler Sky Masterson falls head over heels in love with mild-mannered mission worker Sarah Brown. He confesses that he’d never been in love before, that he thought he knew the score, but all at once, “It’s you forever more.”

Sarah, while not admitting she’s smitten with this braggard, sings “I’ll know when my love comes along; I’ll know then and there.”

Of course, she already knew and maybe he did too.

In Camelot, King Arthur’s queen Guinevere falls in love with Sir Lancelot, who determines to leave Camelot rather than befoul the kingdom with their love affair. However, he has second thoughts after thinking it through and realizes that he couldn’t leave in any season:

Oh, no! Not in springtime!
Summer, winter or fall!
No, never could I leave you at all!

So much for that.

Music Man and con-man Harold Hill arrives in River City to scam the residents with his plan to buy musical instruments and outfits for the band members and to teach them to play. His plot was to collect the funds and disappear.

Until, that is, he was taken with librarian and part-time music teacher Marian Paroo. He falls in love, and sings:

There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
’til there was you.

The Beatles sang a pretty good version of this Broadway tune on their second album, Meet the Beatles!

Military Inspiration

When we remember the troops who climbed the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, hunkered down on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, pressed on in the killing fields of Incheon, Korea, and so many other places where our presence was needed, we are reminded of the lines from Man of La Mancha, that we’d need men who were willing to stand and be counted and to press forward regardless of the situation:

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a Heavenly cause.

I think of the scene in Rick’s Café in the film Casablanca, when the Nazi commandant leads his men in singing a lusty “Deutschland Über Alles.” When Czech freedom fighter Laszlo hears them, he is incensed and orders the band to “Play ‘La Marseillaise’. Play it!”

Rick gives the okay and in French, the café denizens join in a spirited version: 

Allons enfants de la patrie (Come on, children of the fatherland)
Le jour de gloire est arrivé (The day of glory has arrived).

I’ve viewed the movie a dozen times and still can’t watch this scene – knowing what my father and his generation were going through at the time – without tearing up.

Ms. Abbott and Mr. Ehlen were a joy to listen to, and as the Condor Express sailed back through the placid waters and bobbing craft of Santa Barbara Harbor, my thoughts went to my dad, a now-deceased World War II vet who participated in the Anzio (Italy) beach landings, precursor to the Normandy invasion, and never talked much about it.

I do believe the final words of Man of La Mancha rang true for him, as it would have for all the brave men and women who served:

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest.
And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered
with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable star.

Good night, Dad.  


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